"La Esquina Caliente" (The Hot Corner) is a section in Havana's Central Park where heated discussions take place on a daily basis.
These discussions, which seem to be as heated as two lovers quarreling, are often about the Cuban people's passion, their religion, their love for baseball — major league baseball, that is — and about what goes on north of Cuba, in the United States.
Baseball is a sport that is deeply rooted in Cuba, dating back to the 1860s when young Cubans would study abroad in the United States and when sailors would bring the game back to the island.
It is also the game that made me who I am today. My father, Atanacio "Tony" Pérez, was only 17 years old when he signed a professional contract to play baseball. He went on to play first base in the majors in the U.S. for 23 years.
In 2000, he was enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, becoming the only Cuban-born MLB player to be recognized in the hall.
Looking back, my father was fortunate to sign one of the last free-agent contracts before the Cuban Missile Crisis of the Cold War. He signed with the Cincinnatti Reds in 1960.
If you're saying to yourself, "Lucky him, he got paid!" He did not. He signed the contract to chase a dream — a $2.50 visa to get out of Cuba.
He arrived in Florida in 1960 not knowing the English language and witnessing segregation first hand. The plan was to return to Cuba once the season was over, and during the first couple of years, that’s exactly what he did. One day, however, my grandfather, José Manuel, told him to stay in the U.S. and not come back. The situation in Cuba wasn't looking good, and eventually, Cuba closed altogether.
Since 1990, there have been 75 Cuban-born players to play major league baseball. Their dream of finally becoming a “big leaguer” was finally accomplished. But at what price? Well, you could easily say that it was with their lives.
Many left Cuba on rafts with loved ones seeking asylum in the U.S. Others made deals out of desperation with traffickers and smugglers. If you were even caught talking about defecting to the U.S. — or attempting it — you would not be allowed to join or stay on the Cuban Baseball National Team. Even worse, you wouldn't be allowed to make a living in Cuba playing the game you love.
It’s happened to many who sought fame and fortune to help out their loved ones.
As a result, more often than not, many players' dreams were crushed. Many felt the only way to out was by leaving their homeland, risking it all, for the sake of freedom.
Yasiel Puig, a Cuban-born right fielder for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and Jose Abreu, a Cuban-born first baseman for the Chicago White Sox, both signed contracts and made it to the majors. They’ve enjoyed success with their teams but endured harrowing episodes involving smugglers and human traffickers in the process.
Those are just two examples of the many stories that are all too common in the last 30 years.
This recent deal between the Cuban Baseball Federation, Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association, will allow players from the island to sign big league contracts without defecting, in an effort to crack down on human trafficking. It benefits all parties involved in different ways.
But my heart is still broken, even after this deal. All parties are trying to do good for the love of the game. The Cuban players are still a long way from freedom, but I hope this is a step in the right direction.
I really can’t wait to get back to “La Esquina Caliente” to see what they think.
This story was featured in the Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018, episode of ABC News' daily news podcast "Start Here."
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